A couple of months ago, I came across Dorothea Lange’s censored photographs from the Japanese internment camps and it hit me in a way that I didn’t expect. The idea of oppression changed for me a little bit. Had I been alive at the time, I would have personally been in those camps.
I’ve always found racism infuriating, but this added an element of fear to the whole thing. I imagine that it’s the same kind of fear that most African-Americans live with on a daily basis. Except for them, it’s turned up to 11, since most of the stuff they fear still happens today.
Of course, I’ve experienced racism in the United States, but being asked, “Where are you from?” over and over again with the absolute clear intention of othering me doesn’t quite have the same impact as unjust imprisonment.
I’m not the only one who is a little more scared these days. The other day, while walking in a Tokyo city park, an elderly Japanese woman approached me and my husband.
“Can I ask you a question?” She asked in perfect English.
“Yes,” we said.
“What country are you from?” She asked.
“We’re Americans,” we said. This seemed to spark something in her. It could have been anger or excitement, I couldn’t tell. She pulled out a clipboard and showed it to us.
“Will you sign this?” It was a petition asking the United States to refrain from using nuclear weapons. I took a closer look at this woman and realized that she probably knows, first hand, what a nuclear bomb does to a city.
As the woman walked away, my first thought was, “this is a sign of the times.” I’m sure that she got no joy out of spending her Sunday afternoon searching for Americans so she could get a petition signed, but that’s the kind of fear that people are living with these days.
In 1942, The LA Times wrote, “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents—grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” Since I’ve been alive, the mainstream message to Asians is that we should align ourselves with white people against brown people. They tell us we’re in favor (for now), and we wouldn’t want those tides to turn, would we? If minorities are kept separated, then our power can’t be combined.
It’s a tool for disempowerment by convincing us that it’s safer to be compliant. This is an extension of the argument that causing trouble over “politics” is a shameful, even punishable thing.
Saying the words, “it’s just politics” is a lot easier when you think your life won’t be affected politics. However, I suspect that it’s not going to be long before it’s no longer “just politics” for anyone, unless you happen to be a white Christian cis straight (or closeted) male millionaire.
Politics is the reason atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Politics would have been put me in an internment camp. Politics caused the Holocaust. Politics has sent people to war and tortured prisoners. If you aren’t going to stand up against destructive political policies, then are you going to stand up for anything?
When I see people shame others for “overreacting to politics,” I hear, “It’s more important for me to not be inconvenienced than it is for people to have their health, families, livelihoods, and lives protected.”
It also sounds to me like a whine, “It’s not fair that I’m losing social currency for being a selfish jerk!” But, that’s the whole point of social currency. Being a jerk costs you social currency because most people don’t want a society full of selfish jerks.
I really wonder about the people who are so afraid of discomfort that their main goal is to bully other people into silence. I wonder about their personal relationships and their friendships. I wonder what they think about the people they love. Do they refuse to hear them, too? How does that work out?
I’ve always found that intimacy and understanding is created when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable with each other. It happens in that moment when we’re in conflict and we want nothing more than to not hear what the other person has to say, but we hear it, anyway. Those are the moments when are our relationships become strong, rewarding, and loyal.
I believe that as humans, we are adapted to crave safety. We feel the most safe when we feel belonging. We get feelings of belonging from connection. Connection does not mean ignoring the pain of others. It doesn’t mean telling people to not feel horror or fear because of serious injustice. It comes from listening to people’s feelings and understanding why they believe that conflict is necessary.